One day, marriage therapist Patty Howell confided in her husband that she’d always wanted to be a top-notch rose grower whose flowers were perfect enough to display in flower shows and even win trophies. “Ralph agreed to support and help me,” Howell says. “He dug holes for the roses, helped prune them in the winter, and helped transport the cut blooms to shows. He helped out quite a bit so that I could reach my goal.”
Setting off in your own direction for even a few hours a week, yet being married, is a tightrope walk. It’s joyful and invigorating, scary and sometimes a little lonely. Yet finding your own personal bliss and pursuing it can enhance your relationship precisely because it makes you a happier person. It can also reduce conflict and frustration in your marriage by taking the pressure off your spouse for being entirely responsible for your happiness — and vice versa.
Further, it’s a great way to boost self-confidence. When University of California, Berkeley, researchers tracked hundreds of couples over several decades, one pattern they found was that people who had higher self-esteem and who saw themselves as effective were happier in their marriages. And so were their partners. Individual happiness will make your marriage happier. In a University of Missouri-Columbia study analysis of 225 research papers on happiness involving 275,000 people, researchers found that people who were happy had better social relationships, including happier marriages.Encouragement and Support
The first step along this road-less-traveled? A significant and freeing shift in the way you see your mate. “Your partner is a secondary need-meeter in your life,” Howell notes. “He or she cannot fulfill every one of your needs and desires and goals.” It’s a tough lesson to learn, and the Rebellion stage is the perfect time for it. It’s easy to be lulled into thinking your spouse is the primary person responsible for your happiness. “Then we get ticked off when they’re not doing a perfect job,” Howell says.
In contrast, when you feel more alive in your own life, it adds joy to your marriage. These strategies can help you pinpoint healthy personal goals — playing lead guitar in a local grownup garage band, lifting weights, taking a painting class — and help you go after them with your partner’s full support and encouragement.
Avoid “spite goals.” Spouses in the Rebellion stage are often angry that their partners haven’t met their ideals and illusions. But don’t let that anger fuel your interests, or how you pursue them. It doesn’t leave room for your mate to cheer you on, and turns a healthy hobby into a betrayal every time you lavish time, energy, or money on your interest. You’ll only prove to yourself and your partner that seeking personal happiness is incompatible with a happy marriage. An example? The spouse who spends endless hours biking alone or with friends to punish a partner for not becoming the exercise pal of his or her dreams.
Let bliss be your guide. Perhaps you’ve always wanted to raise honeybees, brew beer, learn to oil-paint, or sail on a local lake. Maybe you’ve dreamed of taking up an instrument you played in high school, brushing up your college French, or joining a volleyball league. Think through the possibilities and listen within for the thrill that says, Yes, this is it.
Start small. Howell didn’t open a rose farm; she planted a manageable garden. Once you’ve identified your bliss, think of a way to start small so that you can easily fit commitments into your life without stealing time from your marriage.
Talk to your spouse. Tell your partner about your interest and how you’d like to pursue it. Be honest and specific about the time commitment and what it will cost. Ask if he or she has any fears, reservations, or objections. Talk them through. You can’t expect your partner to be an active participant, of course. The pleasure’s in sharing your own excitement and receiving support and encouragement in return.
Reciprocate. “One of the highest goals of marriage is coming to a fuller understanding of who you are as an individual while remaining close to the person you care about most,” Howell says. “This is a two-way street. If it matters to your partner that he’s good at tennis, but he doesn’t do anything about it, he may feel resentful or think he’s sold himself short later.” Partners don’t let each other miss out on their dreams.
Make it a daily thing. Personal goals can be as small as having the rental DVD you really want to watch on Friday night. Picking it out is up to you; expecting your spouse to somehow guess what you’d like to see is an easy setup for disappointment.